Rest assured that the waiver Kansas received Thursday from the U.S. Department of Education is no white flag in the effort to teach children and improve schools in the state. But it will give Kansas some welcome control over how it fosters and tracks success.
And if the debacle of the No Child Left Behind law has taught Americans anything over the past decade, it’s that schools are best guided by states and local school boards, not by statistically impossible and counterproductive mandates passed down from Washington, D.C.
As Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who stood out as a “no” vote on No Child Left Behind while in the House, said in a statement reacting to the waiver: “Kansas schools have no problem being held accountable; they simply ask that the federal government afford them sufficient flexibility to tailor education plans to the unique needs of their students.”
Indeed, the waiver application noted that only 217 of 1,367 public schools in the state in 2010-11 failed to make their “adequate yearly progress” testing targets. That school year, 87.5 percent of Kansas students were proficient or better on state reading assessments, while 84.5 percent scored as proficient or better in math.
But as the waiver application argued, “the overemphasis on making adequate yearly progress must change so that Kansas educators are focusing on what students need to know and be able to do to be college- and career-ready by the time they leave Kansas schools.”
If the waiver also enables districts to stop emphasizing math and reading at the expense of other essential subjects such as history, foreign languages and the arts, that will be a significant benefit to students and the state.
The waiver itself has a string attached that will be a challenge for Kansas – figuring out how to evaluate teachers and principals based on student achievement. A new commission would make recommendations by next summer for a system to be implemented by 2014-15.
Kansas now becomes one of 32 states, along with the District of Columbia, to have been granted No Child Left Behind waivers. How many states must be on the waiver list before Congress feels compelled to act and fix the law? Forty? All 50?
The goals of the No Child Left Behind law were admirable. But from the start, its mandates of 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014 looked absurd to anybody who’d actually spent time in an American classroom.
As Kansas education officials rise to the challenges that have come with the opportunity to be free of some of the No Child Left Behind law’s strictures, leaders of Congress should try again to overhaul the law in a responsible, realistic way.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman